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  • Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima
  • Gerald L. Smith
Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. By M. M. Manring (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1998) 210 pp. $47.50 cloth $14.95 paper

For more than a century, Aunt Jemima has been a part of American history and culture. The name has been synonymous with images of the loyal and submissive plantation “mammy” who labored in the Old South. While others have debated the myths and realities of this image, Manring argues that the mammy image has been a racial and sexual symbol used by blacks and whites and men and women from the North and South. Manring explains this conclusion by focusing on the creation and use of Aunt Jemima on the box of a self-rising pancake mix. The book’s final chapter examines Quaker Oats’ successful ability to market the Aunt Jemima trademark in an era of political correctness. Throughout this impressive work, Manring reveals clearly that Aunt Jemima was [End Page 350] unlike other trademarks that degraded African-Americans. A systematic effort was made to give Aunt Jemima a personal history and make her “a real southern cook” (115). As early as 1893, a black woman was employed to make personal appearances at public events and to pretend that she was Aunt Jemima. This gimmick was successful in appealing to new consumers.

According to Manring, the creation of Aunt Jemima pancakes complemented and reconciled the strengths of the North and South after the Civil War. But this union came at the expense of black labor. “White southerners knew how to eat and celebrate,” writes Manring; “Yankees knew how to manufacture and distribute. Both could live in harmony as long as African Americans waited tables and fed the kitchen stoves” (11). The J. Walter Thompson Company (JWT) was influential in promoting the Aunt Jemima trademark in various print ads in women’s magazines. The Company wanted white women unable to hire good black domestic help to consider Aunt Jemima their “slave in a box” when they needed to make quick and convenient pancakes. In doing so, white women could claim the leisurely lifestyle of the Old South. Solid biographical sketches of JWT employees—James Webb Young, an advertiser, and Newell Convers Wyeth, an illustrator— offer good insight into the Company’s marketing strategy of Aunt Jemima.

Manring has skillfully and imaginatively utilized sources that offer more than the history of Aunt Jemima pancakes. This work offers a psychological understanding of the evolution and promotion of a racist image that managed to survive the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It also explains how general trends in advertising and food production influenced the marketing strategies of certain goods like self-rising pancake mix.

Through an exhaustive examination of magazine advertisements and archival advertising collections, Manring has written an engaging piece of scholarship that explains the historical significance that marketing, technology, and popular culture had on shaping racial attitudes. Aunt Jemima, the image and the product, is presented in an interesting and convincing historical narrative. The author even reveals how Quaker Oats recently tried to remake Aunt Jemima’s picture on the pancake box in order to give her a more contemporary and respectful image. But, according to Manring, removing Aunt Jemima’s bandanna and giving her a new outfit did not erase the historical image of mammy. It simply made her presence in American culture more acceptable to whites.

The emphasis that Manring places on the white perspective of the Aunt Jemima trademark receives primary attention throughout the book. Although Manring writes that most African-Americans were insulted by the image, the depth and breadth of the black community’s reaction to the Aunt Jemima trademark before and after the modern civil rights movement needs further examination. In spite of this shortcoming, however, this is a fascinating work about race and advertising [End Page 352] in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. It reminds us of the subtle ways that advertising shapes our perceptions of people whom we assume to know.

Gerald L. Smith
University of Kentucky

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pp. 350-352
Launched on MUSE
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